The flightpath into Malta involves the aircraft flying over the vast landscape of Sicily which sits to its north. The island of Sicily is mostly mountainous, and the seismic volcanic activity is quite intense.
Europe’s highest active volcano is Mount Etna (10,900 feet – 3,220 metres) and its visually stark. Amidst the heat and blue skies the highest peaks of it are covered in ice and snow. From above, the coastline of Sicily seems to go on forever and it’s mostly mountainous with Mount Etna and its activity all too clear in the distance.
Malta is a mere postage stamp in comparison to Sicily.
The crystal clear gentle blue inlets just off Gozo are one of the first things you see if you fly in from the north west; and soon the full landscape of this archipelago at the centre of the Mediterranean appear to the visiting eye.
A Journey around the Stadia of Malta
Malta’s name comes from the main island in the group – Malta.
The ancient Greeks had called Malta ‘meli’ or ‘Melitē’ thanks to the honey they came to find on the island. And they didn’t have to go very far to find honey. The longest distance on Malta is about 17 miles, from southeast to northwest; and the widest part is 9 miles from east to west. Malta’s shoreline is only 85 miles long; Gozo’s even smaller at 27 miles.
This is an island that is effectively a range of small towns rather than suburbs that surround a capital – in the case of Malta the town of Valletta is the administrative hub where the Maltese parliament is located.
Some 6,000 people live on Valletta and while it is a tourist site the real tourism hot spots are on Gozo or in St Julians where the nightlife strip can be found. Such are the range of towns over 500,000 people live on Malta with up to 25,000 located in the larger town of Sliema just across the water from Valletta.
Sliema is a major residential and commercial area and a centre for shopping, bars, dining, and harbour side café life. It is also the most densely populated town on the island.
Maltese politics, some say, is rife with patronage, parochialism, cronyism and money laundering – namely full blown corruption. This is an accusation thrown about at national, EU and even at local municipal governmental level.
Such is the depth of political influence in society its creeping scope has recently woven a way into club football all be it that the man appointed ‘Dr Joseph Muscat’ is now a former Prime Minister. This makes his role extra difficult as he was forced to resign political office in a contraversy related to the Panama Papers investigation. A Maltese female journalist was eventually blown up by a car bomb; and that journalist had been investigating political corruption on the island.
The polarisation of the two large major parties has not stopped, it would seem, a select group advancing to run Malta since the 1940’s. Common family names seem to run and weave a way through most things for one reason or another, as we know, on Sicily.
Likewise on Malta the political elite and a range of family surnames seem to have a controlling say on most things that impact ordinary people – and this now includes Maltese football.
In Madeira they build statues for footballers but Malta has never got anywhere near producing a player of Ronaldo’s calibre. The most famous footballer to ever come from Malta is Carmel Busuttil and his career never got much further than Genk.
In the UK most statues are those for Kings, Queens or historic military leaders but on Malta it seems that those statues which are most notable are those of bespectacled former Prime Ministers.
The national stadium of Ta’Qali was built in the midst of a parched landscape and bordered by the fortified walls of the ancient capital of Mdina. It was built during the regime of Dom Mintoff another Prime Minister whose statue stands in Valletta.
On Malta if Liverpool or Manchester United are playing you notice the shirts everywhere in the numerous bars but that is not to say that the clash of Premier League giants is the biggest on Malta.
Local rivalry runs deep on Malta particularly in the densely populated south eastern region. Tifo displays are common, cup finals wins are celebrated wildly by fans and each domestic title is seen as a sign of greatness over a local rival.
Fan rivalry is big, very big – combining English, North African and Italian styles of football fandom. One hint to this rivalry is at Ħamrun Spartans ‘Victor Tedesco’ Stadium where you notice the segregation fences inside and the numerous gate entry points outside.
Quite simply, local fans need kept apart come match-day.
For many years the biggest rivalry on Malta was that between Sliema Wanderers and Floriana – the two most successful clubs historically and with the longest traditions. Sliema however have fallen on hard times, being relegated from the Premier League in recent years meaning that this particular derby match is not happening at the moment.
Moreover, it’s been over 15 years since Sliema last won the title.
Due to the rise of newer club’s such as Birkirkara and the post war giants of Valletta, it is true that the football landscape has changed slightly on Malta. Hibernians Paola have overtaken Sliema in terms of success, influence and prestige. While Sliema have a roof top ground located in Sliema, Hibernians in contrast have the Tony Bezzina Stadium which although on face value is relatively humble has characteristics that are not found elsewhere on Malta. This includes a top quality playing surface and a large stand for fans.
That said Sliema Wanderers are still Maltese football’s largest team despite playing in the second tier Challenge League and they are Malta’s most successful club – Sliema are the Glasgow Rangers of Maltese football if you like.
Malta gets its football culture from the diverse generational, intellectual and cultural influences on Malta. Many people have grown up feeling like cultural exiles in Malta. While born, raised and living on Malta football fans have found a natural affinity not only with the local football teams but also with those of a kindred spirit in England and Italy.
Italian was Malta’s official language for around four centuries but in 1880, the British took control and this legacy can be felt everywhere in christian names, retail outlets and in football club names. There are no ‘AC’ or ‘SSC’ titles used for clubs in Malta. Instead what you have are clubs with names such as ‘Wanderers’, ‘United’, ‘Hotspurs’ and even a ‘Rangers’ – Żebbuġ Rangers.
What is evident to a visitor is that Malta is more similar in cultural feel to Gibraltar (at least in British eyes) rather than Italy. The symbolism is everywhere and the red and white Bandiera ta’ Malta (the national flag) even has the St George’s cross displayed on it – all be it on a corner of the flag rather than at the centre.
International Team – Tim nazzjonali tal-futbol ta’ Malta
While local people are very protective and have emotional ties to club sides there are no foreign stars in Maltese football. Those football stars which do come to Malta are those playing for visiting national teams or for foreign club sides.
International games played at the national Ta’Qali stadium in Malta are considered more as occasions to see and greet the foreign named players visiting rather than a chance for Malta to actually win the match. This will particularly be the case with the forthcoming 2023 UEFA European Qualifying campaign given Malta have been drawn in a dream group alongside Italy and England.
Allegiance switching is a big thing in Maltese football fandom at both international and club level. Many of the traditional clubs are followed by a core group of about 100-300 fans whom are all extremely passionate about the club. Titles or domestic cup wins tend to be celebrated wildly at the club HQ or in the local civic square where fans will meet and rejoice at getting one over a local rival.
One such celebration was the title win of Floriana in 2020; a victory that brought them level with Sliema Wanderers in terms of title wins (26). Sliema however point to having won more titles overall and being runners up more times than Floriana have been.
Maltese football exists in a very small bubble of intense parochial rivalry.
The current big talking points in Maltese football are the upcoming qualification games of the national team against Italy and England; two of the biggest games in living memory now approach. At domestic level the involvement of the disgraced former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat in domestic football has proven to be one of the biggest talking points for years.
With Maltese football forever entangled in disagreements about whom or which teams have the most ‘influence’ politically it seems curious that member clubs have chosen to appoint a man whom has caused so much damage to domestic affairs.
Dr Muscat has consistently appeared on the fringes of major alleged cases of serious corruption and is said to be the architect of a culture of impunity that exists amongst the elite of Malta.
The appointment of Joseph Muscat as chairman of the Malta Premier League has been met by excitement from the local football family all be it that his voting in was a divisive one with the clubs split.
The key is that the leading clubs are unified in wanting to see the domestic elite championship become a more attractive competition locally; especially on an island known for its depth of football interest.
Moreover, with a population of over 500,000 there are frustrations that the national team and the major clubs have never advanced results wise even compared to Gibraltar or Lichtenstein. Both of the latter have seen sides (Lincoln Red Imps and FC Vaduz) progress to UEFA group stage football.
Dr Muscat had established himself as one of the country’s leading politicians, having served as Prime Minister of Malta for seven years between 2013 and 2020, but had never been involved in football administration. Indeed his football leanings are said to be for AC Milan rather than any Maltese side and this non affiliation may be one of the reasons why he was appointed to revamp the existent football structure. Namely he is an ‘independent’ in Maltese football terms and aims to get top-flight clubs (many of whom have over 100 years of rivalry) to work closer together for the overall benefit of the overall set up.
While the incoming of Muscat has seen him speak of ‘equality’ and striving to increase female involvement in Maltese football, Muscat is former Prime Minister who was forced to resign in 2020 amid a political crisis linked to the murder of prominent journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. This journalist had worked for years to expose the political corruption rife in Maltese public life before being blown up in a car bomb plot.
However for the Maltese FA the appointment of Muscat is a strategic one.
While the main political parties (Dr Muscat has enemies on both the left and right) wanted the appointment to come as a result of a popular election the MFA and UEFA wanted someone with no club loyalties nor any football links i.e. a business brain. Muscat was seen as someone ‘new’ who could lead the transition outlined in the local MFA strategic 5 year plan and aligned the MFA via UEFA’s ‘globalist’ themes (Muscat is a former MEP).
The planned changes Muscat aims to implement are a more professional and sustainable Maltese Premier League – one which attracts a wider range of fans to the stadium (namely positioning Malta politically alongside UEFA’s strategic pilar of ‘inclusion’). Another aim is to attract more investment in young players and increase the involvement of women in MFA leadership circles – somewhat curious given Muscat’s recent murky political past.
Muscat’s short involvement in Maltese football has already seen claims that he has been in talks with the Malta Football Association over plans to send a Maltese team to compete in the Italian Serie C, the third-highest division in the Italian football league system. Several journalists in Malta have pointed to the involvement of Andorra FC in the second tier of Spanish football as to why such involvement would be of benefit to Malta. Against this the ‘traditionalists’ suggest something like this happening would see one of the main traditional clubs drop out of Maltese football to the detriment of other teams.
Malta is an interesting football landscape at least to the outsider or visitor from abroad.
Considering its proximity to Tunisia and Italy you can’t really find huge crowds or a depth of big stadia to visit. Pretty much everything (both in international and club football) seems to be concentrated within the confines of the Malta FA’s HQ at Ta’Qali.
Those who follow one of the traditional clubs and live in Malta might tell you a much different story.
Images from Malta can be seen by clicking here > Malta Album